The race for North Carolina’s 9th District is the 2018 election that just won’t end. Tuesday’s Republican primary will go a long way toward determining where this competitive special election is headed next.
It all started with Republican Rep. Robert Pittenger. Just over a year ago, he became the first incumbent of the cycle to lose. He lost his primary to Mark Harris, who’d come within 133 votes of knocking him off in a recount two years earlier. Harris then faced Democrat Dan McCready, a solar energy financier and Marine veteran.
A retired pastor, Harris had said some controversial things. He ran with the support of the Club for Growth, but he wasn’t a good fundraiser. President Donald Trump twice campaigned for him in the district, which stretches from Charlotte to Fayettesville and backed Trump by 12 points in 2016. Despite McCready saying he wouldn’t vote for Nancy Pelosi for speaker, Harris hit him with that attack anyway.
By the end of counting in November, Harris had beaten McCready — by just 905 votes. But the North Carolina State Board of Elections delayed certifying the results in the face of election fraud allegations. The Associated Press retracted its call in the race, and come 2019, the Democrat-controlled House refused to seat Harris.
The state board was investigating an absentee ballot collection scheme that was run by a contractor paid by the Harris campaign. Harris maintained he knew nothing about the ballot collection efforts. But after a week of dramatic public hearings in February, during which Harris’ own son testified that he warned his father about the contractor, Harris and the state board both called for a new election in the 9th District.
Harris declined to run for the redo contest, citing health issues. Other big names, including former Gov. Pat McCrory and Pittenger, also passed on the race, which gave way to a crowded field of 10 Republican candidates.
If none of them receive more than 30 percent of the vote, the runner-up may request a runoff, which would be held on Sept. 10, followed by a general election on Nov. 5. If there’s no runoff, the general election will be held on Sept. 10. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race a Toss-up.
The Republican nominee will face McCready, who doesn’t have a primary and has been fundraising nonstop since last fall, as well as Green Party and Libertarian candidates. Only Republican and unaffiliated voters may vote in Tuesday’s primary. As the votes come in, here are three things to look for that should tell us how much longer we’ll be watching this race.
1. Does Bishop pass 30 percent?
State Sen. Dan Bishop has always been regarded as the front-runner, and three recent polls show him holding a strong lead, with two suggesting he could cross the runoff threshold.
In an April 22-23 poll of 400 likely primary voters conducted for Bishop’s campaign, he led with 36 percent, followed by Union County Commissioner Stony Rushing at 18 percent, former Mecklenburg County Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour at 13 percent and real estate agent Leigh Brown at 3 percent.
A Public Policy Polling survey conducted about a week later put Bishop at 31 percent. He hit 30 percent in an April 29-30 poll conducted by the firm WPAi for the Club for Growth, which has backed him.
Bishop was the sponsor of HB2, otherwise known as “the bathroom bill,” a state law that required people to use bathrooms in government-run facilities that corresponded to the sex on their birth certificates. McCready is already using Bishop’s bathroom bill legacy to raise money.
Bishop hasn’t made the bathroom bill a part of his public platform. It’s nowhere to be found on his website, which touts his support for a voter identification amendment that a judge later struck down. When asked at a recent debate about the bathroom bill, which has since been repealed, Bishop said people were tired of talking about it and blamed the media for being obsessed with the issue.
Although he’s not running on it, the bathroom bill likely endears Bishop to the socially conservative GOP base. And while that legacy may have turned off some Charlotte donors, it hasn’t hurt his overall fundraising advantage. He raised $572,000 as of his latest filing with the Federal Election Commission on May 13, although that includes a $250,000 personal loan.
Bishop was able to go up on TV early. He was the only candidate to do so, although Brown has benefited from TV ads from the National Association of Realtors PAC.
Besides the Club for Growth, which has been attacking two of his opponents, Bishop has also picked up the backing of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, former 9th District Rep. Sue Myrick and a contribution from 11th District Rep. Mark Meadows, the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus.
2. Who finishes second?
Rushing came in second in all three polls of the 9th District that have been publicized. That’s significant because Rushing has said he would not request a runoff if he comes in behind Bishop. So even if Bishop doesn’t surpass 30 percent, it’s possible there won’t be a runoff.
That would be a relief to Republicans who are worried about holding the seat and don’t want to waste any more time or money on internecine fights while McCready has the general election to himself.
Rushing is an unconventional candidate. He’s previously campaigned on his impersonation of Boss Hogg, the county commissioner character in “The Dukes of Hazzard.” He jazzed up his version of a swamp ad, ubiquitous in GOP primaries, by putting a snake around his neck. He’s also defended Harris, who’s endorsed him. Even after Harris called for a new election, Rushing blamed the election fraud on Democrats. A second-place finish from Rushing would say a lot about where the base stands. Some conservatives still believe Harris got a raw deal.
3. Where does Leigh Brown end up?
Polling suggests that the outside money spent in the race for Brown might not have gone very far. She’s a distant fourth in all three recent surveys.
In addition to the $1.3 million in independent expenditures from the Realtors, Brown also benefited from over $200,000 in contributions from individual real estate agents. She was the PAC’s fundraising chair up until two days before she entered the race.
Bishop has attacked her for living outside the district and for having support from a Washington-based outside group, although he also benefited from outside support from the Club for Growth, which had spent $138,000 attacking Brown.
Brown is one of four women running in the primary. She had the backing of VIEW PAC, but did not attract the kind of independent expenditures from GOP women’s groups that pediatrician Joan Perry received in North Carolina’s other special election primary this year. Running to replace the late GOP Rep. Walter B. Jones in the 3rd District, Perry finished second in the April 30 primary, advancing to a July runoff.